Board seeks to preserve Hanford history

RICHLAND -- As Hanford buildings rapidly are being torn down, the Hanford Advisory Board is concerned that the artifacts that tell the story of Hanford are going with them.

The National Historic Preservation Act makes the Department of Energy responsible for preserving Hanford's historic artifacts and property, but many environmental cleanup managers are not aware of the act, said Maynard Plahuta, a member of the advisory board.

"(Artifacts) just get tossed before they know they should be preserved," he said as the board discussed the issue at its meeting Thursday and Friday in Richland.

Hanford holds a place in world history, ushering in the Atomic Age.

Its workers built the world's first production-scale nuclear plant in World War II, and Hanford plutonium was used in the first atomic explosion and in the bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan.

After the war, more than half of the nation's plutonium would be produced at nine reactors along the Columbia River, and N Reactor also would be used to produce power.

In Hanford's 300 Area, nuclear research was conducted along with fabrication of fuel for the nuclear reservation's reactors.

But "it appears very few, if any, of the artifacts from the 300 Area fuel fabrication and research and development facilities were properly saved," the board said in advice it sent Friday to DOE. "There appears to be a concentrated emphasis on demolition, while neglecting preservation considerations."

However, the board was optimistic that historic preservation is improving at Hanford.

DOE recently hired a federal archaeologist and created a senior staff position with the duty of preserving artifacts. It also has agreed to save two original Hanford locomotives and two fuel cask cars that otherwise would have ended up in the Hanford landfill, the board said.

The board also praised DOE's efforts to permanently preserve the world's first production scale reactor, B Reactor, and its support to make it part of a proposed Manhattan Project National Historic Park.

Colleen French, who was named to the position that will help protect Hanford artifacts, agreed that a DOE plan to save artifacts that was signed about 15 years ago has not been implemented as well as it should be.

Experts go through buildings before they are demolished to tag artifacts that should be preserved, Plahuta said. But some buildings, such as the Critical Mass Building, don't appear to have been on the list to have items tagged, he said. And in other cases, tags have gotten lost by the time buildings are ready to be emptied and demolished.

When contractors have pulled items out of buildings, the artifacts might have been left "to sit on the curb," French said.

But in a new program, Mission Support Alliance has started a pick-up service to respond to contractor calls and get artifacts into proper storage, she said.

DOE also is planning to build a building to store and display artifacts near the boundary of Hanford, she said. It evaluated existing buildings on site and space available to lease, but concluded none met its needs.

Now, DOE has 10,000 square feet of artifacts in storage, including 4,000 photos and 3,000 objects, she said. They should be available for the public to see and available for research, she said.

The board largely was in agreement.

"The ultimate purpose of preserving Manhattan Project and Cold War Era historical properties and artifacts is to reap the public values and educational benefits they embody," the board said in its advice. "To recover these benefits, the artifacts and properties need to be regularly viewable by and accessible to educators, researchers and members of the public to the greatest extent possible."

Putting a fence around historic property is not adequate and does not meet the intent of the law, the board said.

That needs to be considered not only with Manhattan Project and Cold War properties, but also structures left from before land was condemned and made part of the nuclear reservation, it said. The nuclear reservation's buildings include the White Bluffs Bank, the Bruggemann stone warehouse, the 1908 Hanford Irrigation Project Pump House and the Hanford High School.

The board advised DOE to expand the use of photos, virtual tours and websites to tell the story of Hanford, but cautioned that a photo does not replace an actual artifact.

Board members envision elements of buildings being saved from demolition that could be used to replicate the feeling for visitors of being in an operating Hanford production facility.

Decontaminated items might include a hallway that visitors could walk through with caution signs and decontamination wash stations, plus displays of glove boxes, air lock doors, hand and foot radiation counters, respiratory equipment, emergency switches and vault racks that once held canisters of plutonium.

* Annette Cary: 509-582-1533; acary@tricity herald.com; more Hanford news at hanfordnews.com.